I don’t think it is an overgeneralization to say that most political scientists who study presidential elections downplayed the impact of the rules changes to the nominating process implemented by the Republican Party this year. They did so for two reasons. First, the new rules didn’t really change the delegate selection process in those states holding nominating contests in January and February from what they were in 2008. Second, as Josh Putnam points out, many of the states that hold events later in the process and which adopted a more proportional delegate allocation system, also include a winner-take-all proviso that awards a candidate who wins 50% or more at the state or congressional district level all the delegates in that jurisdiction (state or congressional district). This meant that if the Republican field was winnowed quickly, as it has been in past elections, it was likely that the front runner – say, Mitt Romney – in a two-person race would be positioned to capitalize on the winner-take-all threshold to capture the bulk of delegates and end this nomination race quickly.
There are two problems with this scenario. First, as the Republican field has been winnowed, Mitt Romney has not benefitted as much as many political scientists had predicted. Instead, a sizeable chunk of voters who supported departed candidates has gravitated toward the two remaining conservative candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Second, the race has not devolved into a two-person contest – at least not yet. Ron Paul, who draws a significant portion of his support from voters who would otherwise back Romney, shows no signs of leaving the race. Newt Gingrich has vowed to stay in until at least the first week of March, when he hopes to begin picking up victories and delegates on Super Tuesday. And Rick Santorum, the candidate I have suggested would be the next to step aside, is instead hoping that victories in today’s caucuses and the Missouri primary will steer momentum toward his candidacy. Although polling a caucus state is notoriously difficult, with less than 2% of eligible adults likely to turnout, PPP has commissioned a trio of polls that indicate Santorum is set to do well in all three caucuses (polls courtesy of Pollster.com).
As a sign that Santorum is now seen as a threat, the Romney campaign has trained its biggest guns on him, even as they have begun ratcheting down expectations in today’s contests. Polls suggest Santorum could win Minnesota and Missouri, and finish second in Colorado. If he does, the boost in publicity and, perhaps, fundraising, would make it less likely that he will drop out anytime soon. In a four-person race, it becomes more difficult for Mitt to reach the 50% threshold.
This does not mean, however, that everyone else’s favorite scenario – a brokered convention – is likely to happen. Romney still sits in the driver’s seat. But under the new delegate allocation system, I think it becomes harder for Romney to close the nomination contest out in a four-person race, and easier for his opponents to justify staying in the race in a bid to rack up delegates and hope that the longer the race runs, the more disillusioned Romney supporters become. Of course, the new system also makes it harder to catch Romney – something Hillary Clinton discovered in 2008 when she won a number of high profile big states late in the Democratic nominating race but was unable to erase Obama’s early delegate lead. In short, I think we are in for a long slog where Romney’s best-case scenario is centered on building his winning coalition, one brick at a time. Keep in mind that we are in the very early stages of the delegate allocation process. At this point, even if we include endorsements from Republican Party members who attend the convention as unpledged delegates, Romney only has 101 delegates – less than 10% of the 1,1044 he needs to clinch the nomination. There’s a long way to go yet.
This makes today’s contests some of the most important of the race so far. Although Gingrich is not on the ballot in Missouri’s non-binding primary, that will not stop the media from overreacting to a Santorum victory there as a potential game-changer. Similarly, a Santorum win in the Minnesota caucuses, even though it won’t mean much in terms of delegates, will send the punditocracy into overdrive, with much talk of shifting momentum, etc. So there’s a lot at stake here for Santorum.
But there’s also much on the line for Romney. If he falters, it will contribute to the ongoing media theme that his support is lukewarm, particularly among the conservatives and Tea Party activists who are likely to dominate the Minnesota caucuses.
With that in mind, here’s what’s at stake today.
Colorado: 36 total delegates – 10 chosen at large, and 21 spread among 7 congressional districts. An additional 3 are unpledged party members, and there are 2 bonus delegates. The caucus proceedings are open to Republicans only. Keeping in mind the difficulty of polling caucuses, Romney should do well here based on surveys to date. Remember, this is only the first step in a four-step process culminating in the actual awarding of delegates sometime in April.
Minnesota: 40 total delegates – 10 awarded at large, 24 divvied up across 8 congressional districts, three unpledged party members and three bonus delegates. Again, no actual delegates are awarded today. In contrast to Colorado, this is an open caucus, in which non-Republicans can participate.
Missouri: This is a completely meaningless “beauty pageant” primary; none of Missouri’s 52 delegates will be awarded today. Instead, that process begins with county caucuses in mid-March. Nonetheless, I expect the media to make it a bigger deal than it really is. If Rick wins, get ready for the media narrative to begin predicting a Santorum’s surge.
Make no mistake about it – this is potentially a big day for all four candidates. Mitt wants to blunt any talk that he can’t close the deal. Rick badly needs a victory – preferably two. Newt wants to do well enough to remain viable. Paul has been counting on the caucuses to demonstrate his followers’ loyalty and he wants to rebound from a disappointing third-place finish in Nevada.
I’ll be on later this evening to do some live blogging. As always, feel free to join in.